The Mindful Learning Framework

Brain with geometric colors and shapes and the other side white

The anticipation of a new semester has always excited me. I have been an educator for 41 years and have worked with students from Pre-K through college. Whether a new semester or new school year, it just doesn’t get old! I’ve taught two first year-experience courses as an assistant professor in the Academic Strategies Department. Both courses are designed to prepare students with the necessary academic learning and study skills to tackle the rigors of college.  The traditional study skills of note-taking, outlining, time management, reading and writing strategies, and library and research skills are the basis for both courses. The learning outcomes for both courses are to provide our students with academic study skills that will transfer into their other courses to increase student confidence and success. However, I have come to believe that these two courses are not enough.  Evidence from student work has demonstrated that there is a need for students to be able to think more deeply about content, and to be able to cover a wider scope of information as they complete coursework.

Mindful Learning Framework

With this in mind, I have developed the Mindful Learning Framework.  It is an organized set of principles to extend thinking and expand learning in a tangible framework that can be applied to any college course.    

The Mindful Learning Framework principles consists of:

  • Mindfulness
  • Positive Thinking
  • Mindset
  • Metacognition
  • Critical Thinking
  • Creative Thinking
  • Meditation

Each principle is not new and exists individually within their own domains. However, the power of the Mindful Learning Framework lies in the fusion of the principles to strengthen the thinking and learning process. The Mindful Learning Framework can help your students truly own their educational journey.

Start the semester with the following lessons to create the foundation of the Mindful Learning Framework.  The principles need to be explicitly taught before interweaving each into your content. You may be thinking, I don’t have time, but remember, the goal is to improve thinking and learning within the context of your class. Your content will be the driver for each of the principles.

Lesson #1: Thinking and learning

In groups, have your students reflect upon their academic history and identify how they think and learn. When they are done, have each group put their responses on chart paper. In my experience, the results of these conversations will most likely be the identification of concrete skills, such as taking notes, outlining, making flashcards, thinking deeply, and asking questions.  Next, have the groups analyze their answers through the following lenses: How do the strategies work and why do the strategies they work? Inevitably, someone will say something like, “None of these really work,” or “My grades would be better,” which stops the class every time. Light bulbs go on and heads shake in agreement. The segue for the next lesson is created!

Lesson #2: Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the “why” of thinking and learning, while the Mindful Learning Framework is the “how.”  Neuroplasticity is the ability of neural networks within the brain to change, grow, and reorganize. It occurs when the brain rewires itself to function in a new way when practicing a new thinking and learning skill. With teaching your students why neuroplasticity works, they are more likely to apply the Mindful Learning Framework to change their past academic habits. It shows them they can rethink and recreate their habits.  Neuroplasticity is their superpower!  

Lesson #3: Mindfulness

Start class with a discussion on mindfulness.  Review the actual definition: The awareness that emerges through paying attention, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding experience moment by moment (Kabat-Zinn). The power of mindfulness is that with consistent practice it rewires the neural pathways within the brain, which increases the ability for students to pay attention, increases concentration, and regulates and controls emotions.  

You can introduce mindfulness using a 60-second breathing video. There are many YouTube videos that walk beginners through breathing exercises. Do the exercises together at the beginning of class. Mindfulness is the first principle taught because it boosts the effectiveness of the other principles.  

Today’s college students have grown up with devices that allow for instantaneous access to the world.  They have used social media platforms where information is transmitted at lightning speed. Immediate social and emotional gratification (or displeasure) literally exists in the palm of their hand and attention spans have been reduced to the speed of a single swipe. I have witnessed how hard it is for my students to stay in the present moment, prioritize assignments, and persevere through difficulties.  The Gen Z brain has been rewired for a diminished ability to focus and concentrate. Mindfulness can be the path of redirection and reorganization of neural pathways in the brain.

Lesson #4: Positive thinking

It’s important to note that this principle is not all about rainbows and smiley faces. Positive thinking triggers chemicals within the brain to create positive emotions.  In this lesson, have your students take the Positivity Test in Barbara Fredrikson’s book Positivity. This test will push your students to think about how they perceive events in their lives. One of the ways for students to initiate positive thinking is to find positive meaning in the events in their life through daily practice.  Positive thinking teaches students that they can choose to control their thinking to make change, which further empowers them to use positive psychology practices to build and grow behavioral habits.

Lesson #5: Mindset

 I use the work of Carol Dweck in teaching this principle. Have your students take a Mindset Quiz. You will need to adapt Carol Dweck’s quiz for your own class. Don’t  have your students score the quiz until the end of class. Examine the differences between fixed and growth mindsets as described by Carol Dweck. A growth mindset about intelligence leads students to persist through obstacles. This effort is seen as a way to improve or master content, and feedback is seen as a tool for learning. A fixed mindset does quite the opposite. It’s important to note that mindsets vary and humans are not always one or the other. The importance is that mindsets give students a way of analyzing how they approach their thinking, and in turn, broaden their capacity to learn.

Lesson #5: Metacognition

Teach your students how to use metacognition to think deeper and with a wider breadth. It’s not uncommon to hear educators define metacognition as “thinking about your thinking.”  Start the class with a discussion about this statement. What does it mean? What does it look like? Create lists on chart paper.

Next, ask your students, “ How many times have you had a teacher tell you to deepen your writing, thinking, or thoughts?”  At this point, I bet all hands will raise in agreement.  Ask, “What does deepen mean?” Now pause and allow the silence to get loud.  Both discussions set the stage for what comes next.

Model metacognition using an actual assignment for your class. Instruct your students to listen to the conversation they have with themselves. This practice shows students how they think about their thinking in relation to the assignment. At this point, introduce Bloom’s Taxonomy as a way to deepen thinking.

Provide your students with an actual assignment. Have them create questions representing different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy when thinking about the assignment, then use those questions to sharpen their own answers within the assignment. End the lesson with students comparing their metacognitive questions in groups.

Lesson #6: Critical thinking

This principle intentionally follows metacognition. Metacognition helps students analyze their internal thinking about their learning, while critical thinking shifts their reasoning to critiquing claims from the external world to formulate opinions and conclusions. Every day, students are presented with multiple points of view that directly or indirectly pledge allegiance to the truth or to fake news.  Directly teach your students how to use critical thinking skills within the context of your class. Practice by using relevant assignments that push your students to analyze multiple points of view and make conclusions.

Lesson #7: Creative thinking

Teach creativity through the lens of the Innovation Engine created by Stanford professor Tina Seelig. There are multiple videos to supplement this lesson. The Innovation Engine demonstrates that creativity can be cultivated by using a scaffolded set of ideas to shift and change the perspective of an idea to create something original. Use the Innovation Engine to teach a concept within your class.

Lesson #8: Meditation

The meditation principle teaches students about the connection between meditation and neuroplasticity. Bring in a guest lecturer who specializes in meditation to excite your students about the benefits of meditation. Recent studies have shown that regular practice of meditation can increase neuroplasticity within the brain.

The Mindful Learning Framework is an educational practice that teaches students how to learn deeply and with intention. Throughout this article, I have included detailed lessons to begin the semester, but the strength of the Mindful Learning Framework comes from dynamically weaving all of the principles throughout your lessons throughout the semester. Your students will need you to model the use of the Mindful Learning Framework with consistency to make the choice to build neurological pathways within themselves.

Marge Jackson, EdD, is the associate dean of Student Academic Services and an assistant professor of academic strategies at Hillyer College in the University of Hartford.


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